May 20, 2019
Over fifty years ago on their Sgt. Pepper album the Beatles sang about turning sixty-four. But executives should be asking companies: “[w]ill you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-[five]?”
You may be aware that there are no age parameters under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. See N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. (“NJLAD”). You can sue if you suffered an adverse employment action because you were considered too old (regardless of age) or even too young for a job. Bergen Commercial Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188 (1999). The one exception under the NJLAD is with regard to job applicants who are at least age 70. Employers may refuse to hire them, but cannot refuse to renew their contracts based upon their age. In Nini v. Mercer County Community College, 202 N.J. 98 (2010), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the NJLAD protects those workers over seventy (70) who have a pre-existing relationship with the employer from being pushed out of the workforce based on age.
Under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §623 and §631(a), the upper limit for bringing a federal age discrimination claim was age 65. In 1978 the cap was moved to age 70 and in the 1986 amendments to the ADEA the upper limit age cap was totally removed, enabling a Plaintiff to bring an ADEA claim no matter how old they are. For example, an eighty (80) year old can pursue an age discrimination claim if the plaintiff can establish that he or she was still qualified for the job but was denied it due to his or her age. However, these are two exceptions where an employee lawfully can be fired because of his or her age.
One exception is where an employer can establish that age is a bona fide occupational qualification (“BFOQ”). For example, the Federal Aviation Administration used to have an Age 60 Rule which barred individuals who reached their sixtieth birthday from serving as pilots or copilots on commercial flights because their age allegedly caused them to no longer be qualified to fly. An EEOC regulation sets forth what an employer must prove to establish that age is a BFOQ: That (1) the age limit is reasonably necessary to the essence of the business and either (2) that all or substantially all individuals are excluded from the job involved are in fact disqualified, or (3) that some of the individuals so excluded poses a disqualifying trait that cannot be ascertained except by reference to age. If the employer’s objective in asserting a BFOQ is the goal of public safety, the employer must prove that the challenged practice does indeed effectuate that goal and that there is no acceptable alternative which would better advance it or equally advance it with less discriminatory impact. 29 C.F.R. §1625.6(b)(2006).
The other, lesser known, exception to the age discrimination law applies to executives. At age 65 or older, companies are permitted to fire executives to make room for younger employees to run their businesses. Does this law make sense today? As we age, it is more likely that we consider age 65 to be the new 55, but whether the ADEA needs to be amended to increase the age from 65 to 70 or some other age when companies can force executives to retire is a debate for another day.
29 C.F.R. §1625.12 permits the compulsory retirement of any employee who is 65 and who, for the two year period immediately before retirement, is employed in a bona fide executive (as defined in one of the white collar exemptions to the overtime laws) or higher policymaking position, but only if the employee is entitled to an immediate, nonforfeitable annual retirement benefit of at least $44,000. Alternatively, a company can offer a position of lesser status or a part-time job (but if the employee accepts a position of lesser status or a part-time position, he or she cannot be treated any less favorably, on account of age, than any similarly situated younger employee).
Management-side attorneys who draft executive contracts should make note that companies lose the ability to let an executive age 65 or older go if the executive’s retirement benefit is forfeitable. For example, if a pension, profit-sharing, savings or deferred compensation plan provides for the cessation of payments to a retiree if the executive engages in litigation with the company or goes to work for a competitor, the exemption from the ADEA for a bona fide executive is lost.
Do executives lose their touch at 65? As baby-boomers get older they probably don’t think so. Experience outweighs any slowing down. On the other hand, companies are entitled to set long range plans and have executives young enough to see them through. Therefore, even executives who ran their companies for many years, and steered them down “The Long and Winding Road,” are subject to being terminated even if the company’s decision is based upon their age.